Of Books and Quitting and the Best Happy Ending

Hope is not crossed fingers, but a settled heart. ~Esther Lovejoy

I was 11 the first time I remember crying over a book. Sure, my parents and teachers exposed me thoughtfully to heartfelt stories along the way, but this one was different.

Someone had given me A Family Apart (originally published in 1987), the introductory title in Joan Lowery Nixon’s historical fiction series The Orphan Train Adventures. The background was heartbreaking: Immigrants, primarily in port cities along the East Coast, often chose — or were forced — to send their children west because of crushing poverty.

From 1854 to 1929 an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed throughout the United States and Canada during the Orphan Train Movement. … This period … is widely recognized as the beginning of documented foster care in America. ~National Orphan Train Complex

So there I was, a voracious reader thrilled to have a new book. But I was also an insecure child who preferred a day at home with family more than anything. The thought, then, that a mother could willingly send away her children, even if it was for their best, was devastating.

Pages hit especially hard one evening, and sobs came. The emotions took me completely by surprise, in large part because I couldn’t fully understand or explain them. For the first time, I realized the staggering power of connecting with story — and I didn’t know what to do with it. I had a choice to make: Would I finish the book or abandon it?

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The skill of when and how to abandon a book should be taught early and embraced throughout life. Maybe a title is too difficult, too boring, too mature, too irrelevant. Maybe it’s poorly written, or the characters don’t draw you in, or a sequel is a letdown.

Or maybe, like A Family Apart, the plot strikes a tender nerve — and you have to decide whether to let yourself feel and work through those feelings, or set the book aside until your soul is less raw. Then again …

A dear friend witnessed an unspeakable tragedy years ago. I recently saw a copy of A Man Called Ove on her counter and asked what she’d thought. (Don’t worry; no plot spoiling here!) “If I’d known Ove’s ongoing intent,” she said, “I’d never have picked up the book.” In the end, though, the story touched her heart. She read the whole thing and was glad she did.

Sometimes we need to press through the struggle, and we find ourselves richer for doing so.

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I’m a reads-magazines-backward girl, but I never read ahead in books. Even my 11-year-old self would rather weep over the unknown fate of fictional characters than skip ahead to make sure things turn out OK.

Turns out, that was a wise habit to build because my decades-older self knows that books — even beautiful stories, sometimes the most beautiful stories — don’t always turn out OK. And that’s why they’re beautiful: because that’s life. Joy, sadness, all of it. (Read Charles Martin’s The Mountain Between Us. The book. The ending is stunning and unexpected and heartrending and glorious.)

We can abandon a book, but we don’t have the luxury of abandoning life. Not really. We might try, with distractions and addictions and binges and denials. Still, that only avoids reality.

What if we learn to respond instead of try to understand — instead of trying to make sense of nonsensical things? (In case you haven’t yet figured it out, I have to break the news that some things just can’t be figured out.)

The Hebrews were not so much interested in understanding the human condition as they were in responding to the divine reality. Their supreme effort was to hear God’s word, not to tell stories about gods. Their characteristic speech form was not the myth but the prayer. They were deeply committed to a way of life that pivoted on the acts of God.

 

There was something to be done about the human condition, but it was not primarily what men and women attempted but what God is doing. In order to get in on that action they prayed.

 

Their purpose was not to understand what was going on in the human race but to be a part of what was going on with God. The Greeks were experts on understanding existence from a human point of view; the Hebrews were experts in setting human existence in response to God. …

 

Whereas the Greeks had a story for every occasion, the Hebrews had a prayer for every occasion. … Prayer means that we deal first with God and then with the world. Or, that we experience the world first not as a problem to be solved but a reality in which God is acting. ~Eugene Peterson (emphasis added)

Don’t misread. Story has a marvelous place in our spiritual and cultural heritage and in our daily lives; we should be quick to appreciate and applaud an edifying, meaningful work.

The point is that on days when it’s tough to keep going — because hard things crush in, because we know any number of sorrows lie ahead — we should spend more time acknowledging God’s sovereign care, and less time trying to force broken, bent pieces together in a puzzle that will never be solved this side of heaven.   

For all who trust Christ with their story, we’re promised comfort in heartache on this earth — and the ultimate end of our story is so very good. It’s the one story for which I gladly, hungrily skip ahead to know the ending. We don’t know how twisted and rough the path will be, but we can choose where it ultimately leads.

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Would I only read books I know won’t make me sad? Of course not. At 11, I set aside A Family Apart for a couple of days, and then I finished it and the rest of the series. I did cry again, but my world was broadened, and I came to appreciate my family in a new way.

Then there’s the nonfiction title I started a few years ago but abandoned halfway because it hit painfully close to home. The book is lovely and instructive, and I hope to return to it one day. Until then — and even though I’ll never be able to understand my loss — the portion I’ve so far read informs a wiser response to grief, a gentler reaction to the suffering of others.

So go ahead: Abandon a book if you need to, or give yourself grace to feel the hurt yet still continue. Help the budding minds in your charge learn these skills, too.

Just don’t abandon your story. Face it humbly, hold it loosely, respond to it gratefully. Trust it to the One who’s already written the best possible ending for His children. He is making all the pieces fit.

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